My Kingdom for a Tiger

“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”, Richard the Third screamed after the battle at Bosworth. I was a little bit naughty to rely on this reference. The battle where Richard was killed was near Market Bosworth, about 15 km north west of Husbands Bosworth. Nevertheless, I screamed ……

My Kingdom for a Tiger!

It was September 1965. I had been flying gliders solo in the UK for a year, with less than fifty hours experience. I was making my first cross-country flight in one of my club’s Olympias and was about to get into a lot of trouble. Launched at Dunstable, I was trying to reach our sister gliding club at Husbands Bosworth. To achieve 50 km would complete one of the tasks required for the silver badge, and certificate, the so-called Silver C.

The Olympia flying over the gliding club at Dunstable

I had a low spot over Woburn Sands. I could have landed there, but there was a big wild life park and I wasn’t sure of the boundaries. I didn’t want to be surrounded by lions or charged by a rhino. A small cumulus cloud with its expected thermal took me to 4700 feet, and the next cloud the same. I reached my goal. I could see other gliders on the ground and in the air.

I did not want to land. It would do no harm if I landed out at seventy or eighty km, or even more. The map showed several ex-wartime, disused airfields ahead. Any of these would be a good landing place. I could then telephone for the tug plane to come and pick me up and tow me home, saving the time of a road retrieval with trailer.

I left Bosworth behind. Two or three thermals later I saw a sprawling city, Leicester, ahead. It would be foolish to try to cross such a big built up area with no possibility of safe landing for miles.

Here was a disused airfield. There was a tractor ploughing between the runways, proving the place had been abandoned. Two of the runways looked a bit rough but the third was long and smooth, running directly into wind, perfect for landing and for take off later with the tow plane. There was a village nearby. Bruntingthorpe, the map said. This was an ideal place for my first landing away from home.

I was in high spirits. I had plenty of height. To wash some of it off, I did a loop and two or three turns of a spin, which, after recovery, put me in the right position for a perfect circuit and landing. John Jeffries, the club’s chief instructor, J J as we called him, wouldn’t approve of my antics when preparing to land, but he was eighty kilometres away. I touched down like a feather and the glider rolled to a standstill. I took the canopy off, undid my straps and clambered out.

A black car drew up by the wing tip and two uniformed policemen got out. I supposed these coppers must have been driving past the airfield and, catching sight of my naughty flight pattern, thought I was in difficulties. They approached.

“Right sir, get this off the runway and then come with us to the guardroom!” He was wearing stripes and spoke sharply.

“What? Guardroom? What is this?”

“Get it off the runway at once. Then get in the car. Bring the aircraft log book.” No argument would be permitted, it seemed.

“It’s a glider. Gliders don’t have logbooks! What’s the matter? It’s a glider!”

“We know it’s a glider.” Did I think he was stupid? “Move it off the active runway immediately.”

“Active runway? This is a disused airfield. It’s marked on the map!”

“Never mind that,” he said, angrily. “Come on, move it!”

They had to help me push the Olympia onto the grass and, impatiently, allowed me to tie it down in case the wind picked up.

“The log book.”

“I told you, there isn’t one.” He peered sceptically into the cockpit.

“What is that, then?”

“Oh, that’s the DI book, daily inspection.” I showed him, a small yellow book with scores of items ticked, and pilot signatures, the last one my own. “Before we fly, we inspect the glider and sign that it is in good order. It isn’t a log book.”

“Bring it anyway, and your pilot’s licence.”

“Glider pilots do not have licences.”

“Driving licence?” He glared, suspiciously.

“I don’t have it with me.” I was wearing my old, tattered flying suit.

“This is your name here, and the signature?”

I nodded and, reluctantly, got into the car.

In the guardroom the policeman let me sit and wrote down my name, then asked more questions. Where had I come from?

“The London Gliding Club at Dunstable.” He noted this.

“Why did you land here?

“A nice smooth runway, a disused airfield.”

“Did you file a flight plan?”

“No.”

“Why not?” He seemed to think I was being deliberately obstructive.

“Gliders don’t file flight plans. We can’t fly to a rigid plan, it depends on the weather. Look,” I pushed my map across the desk, “The map shows this place as disused. Let me use that phone to call the club and they will send the tug for me.”

“I will phone. What is the number?”

“It will be better for me to do it.”

“Give me the number!” He was becoming quite aggressive. I gave him my note of the number.

I knew who would answer. It would be the young woman we employed to do clerical work in the club office. She didn’t know much about gliders and to her I was just a name in the accounts book.

The man looked at the DI book. That wasn’t going to help, I protested. He wouldn’t listen. I couldn’t hear what the female voice said.

“London Gliding Club? This is the RAF police.” I stared. He was not wearing RAF uniform. As far I could tell he was a civilian copper.

“Do you have a glider registered EON 137?”

“It isn’t a registration number….” I tried to tell him. He wasn’t listening. The girl wouldn’t know. EON was the manufacture’s initials, Elliots of Newbury, and the number was their works production number. She would have no idea what he was talking about.

“Please, I said loudly. Tell her it’s…”

He waved me down, angrily.

“Is one of your pilots called Martin Simmons?” She wouldn’t know and he mispronounced my name anyway. He glowered at me but at last allowed me to speak.

“Tell her it is a club Olympia, it has a big figure 61 on the tail. She should find John Jeffries and bring him to the phone.” This time, reluctantly, he did as I asked. He listened, and seemed to relax slightly.

“She has seen number 61 on one of the gliders. But she says Mr Jeffries might be flying.”

Yes, and he might be up for an hour, or two, I thought.

“She says she’ll go and look for him.” If John wasn’t in the air he would be at the launching point at the far end of the field, nearly a mile from her. It would take time.

“Tell her any club member can take him a message. Say that I have landed here and will they get Ian to come with the Tiger.”

“Tiger?”

“The Tiger Moth. The tow plane. Ian is the tug pilot.”

He grunted, spoke briefly, putting the phone down but left it off the hook.

“She’s gone to find Mr Jeffries.” He seemed now to allow that I was who I said I was.

The other policeman had a kettle boiling.

“While we are waiting, we can have a cup of tea.”

The tea was quite welcome. After a while we heard a faint voice on the phone and I thought I recognised John’s slightly nasal tone. For an awful moment I feared John, with his bizarre sense of humour, would say ‘What? Simmons? Never heard of him!’ Fortunately he didn’t. It sounded more like:

“What’s the silly bugger done?” That was J J all right!

“He has landed at RAF Station Bruntingthorpe.” The reply was inaudible.

“No, the glider is not damaged.”

“Ask about the Tiger!” I almost shouted.

“Mr Simmons wants a Tiger Moth to come for him.” I could not decipher the response.

“Yes, very good. I will call you back about it as soon as I can. I need to get a clearance.”

The call ended.

“What clearance?” I asked.

“I do not have authority to allow a civilian aircraft to land here.”

“It’s only a light aeroplane, a little Tiger!”

He shrugged, it wasn’t his fault.

“Well, who do you have to ask?

“I must ring Wittering.” I recognised the name.

As the man was dialling I remembered. The V Bombers were based at Wittering. I had heard it referred to as Twittering. It was far away in Norfolk.

“They’re finding the Orderly Officer.”

“This is ridiculous. It’s a Tiger Moth. It could be in and out of here in ten minutes.”

He shook his head.

“What is this place? Why is it marked as disused?”

“Never mind that,” he snapped again. Had I touched a nerve?

The phone rang. The orderly officer was on the line. The copper explained about the Tiger.

“Yes, yes sir. I understand, yes sir,” he said, deferently. “Very good, sir.” He rang off.

“He’s going to call back. He has to ring Bomber Command HQ in Uxbridge.” Uxbridge is a suburb of London.

“Bomber Command, about a Tiger?” I couldn’t believe this. “It’s bloody silly. Look, across the road, just over there is a big wheat field, the crops have been cut, a smooth stubble field. If I had landed there the Tiger would have come and gone, you would know nothing about it and I would be at home.”

“You didn’t land over there. You landed here!” I could not argue with that.

How long would Uxbridge take to make up their minds? I wondered if the relevant Air Marshal, or whatever he was, was playing golf this afternoon.

 

We had another cup of tea.

 

The phone rang at last.

 

“Yes, I see. Yes, sir. I’ll tell him.” Phone down, he looked at me smiling but there was something a little crooked in his grin.

“You can have your Tiger.”

“Thank heavens for that. Can I phone the club now?”

“Not yet. There has to be a fire engine on duty.” His companion was having difficulty keeping a straight face.

“For a Tiger…? A fire extinguisher is all you need…Oh, well, let’s get the fire engine out then.” I got to my feet.

“There’s no fire engine here. It will have to come from Wittering.”

“This can’t be happening. It isn’t possible! It will take hours to get here!”

He nodded, having difficulty now not to chuckle.

“Is there an engine in the village?”

“Can’t have a civilian engine here, even if there is one.”

“Bloody Hell!” I looked out of the window. The light outside was fading. It would be fully dark by the time the fire engine arrived. Ian would not even take off. I would have to ask for them to send a car and trailer.

At last the sergeant let me use the phone. J J heard me out. Someone would come for me, sometime tonight. Couldn’t say who. Someone, sometime. After all, John sniggered, it was the club’s Olympia and they wanted it back. It sounded as if he wouldn’t mind if I didn’t come back with it.

The policemen were very kind now. They helped me to drag the glider nearer the gate, we took the tail and the wings off, and laid the parts on the grass. I was angry, hungry and thirsty. They pointed down the road to the village pub.

The Olympia de-rigged and waiting for the trailer

I entered the bar. Ten or a dozen faces turned towards me, noting my dishevelled garment.

“Well well!” said the barman, “where did you drop in from? Came down by parachute, did you?”

“I landed my glider on the airfield up there,” I explained.

They all grinned.

“You’ve had a bit of trouble, then?”

“I’ll say!”

“Why did you land there?”

“Don’t start that again!” They laughed out loud.

“Didn’t you know? That’s the secret diversion base for Wittering.”

“You’re joking.

”Well, we all know the secret, so there is a joke, I reckon. The idea is, when they send the fleet to drop their atom bombs on Moscow or wherever, by the time they get back, if any of them actually get back, Wittering won’t be there any more. So they will land here, if we are still here, re-arm and set off again.”

“Re-arm? What with?” They stared at me as if I was a dimwit. Then I understood. Atom bombs! Re-arm! There were atom bombs stored at Bruntingthorpe. I had landed at place where atom bombs were stored, ready for action!!

“Oh! Oh! Oh Jesus!”

I ordered my meal while I still could.

 

 

 

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